Conference Abstracts
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The Crisis of Black Unemployment in New York City

Privatization and Public Sector Unions

A Critique of the Manhattan Institute's Vision of New York City

The Quality of Life for Working People

The Temping of New York City

The Crisis of Black Unemployment in New York City
Gregory DeFreitas, Economics Department, Hofstra University

The fraction of New York City teenagers employed has fallen sharply since the 1960s to a level less than half the national average, and the lowest of all major cities. While this trend cuts across all racial and ethnic groups, African American youth are the worst off -- a staggering 90 percent had no job in an average week in 1996. Since 51 percent of them live in poor households, finding work is clearly more an income necessity than is the case with most white urban or suburban youth.

A recent survey of a random sample of 424 city employers that I directed points to a number of factors important to their labor market difficulties. In particular, years of sluggish job and wage growth has meant that most employers report a still-abundant supply of displaced, underemployed, and/or moonlighting adult job-seekers. Competition with adults (both immigrant and non-immigrant) for entry-level jobs has been intensified as employers have raised both the minimum schooling and experience levels expected of new hires. Most retailers and service firms told us that this was less the result of rising skill needs than a reflection of their adult applicant pool. It also reflects their overwhelmingly negative assumptions about the preparation given by inner-city public schools. Less than one in ten even considers an applicant's school grades in the hiring process.

Stepped-up growth of good-paying, full-time jobs for adults will thus be a necessary (though not alone a sufficient) condition for reversing the decline in New York teens' employability. Real progress will also require a variety of new local and national strategies, including dramatic improvements in urban school quality and in school-to-work programs, as well as immigration and labor market reforms.

Privatization and Public Sector Unions
Elliott Sclar, Urban Planning Program - Columbia University

Under the guise of extended contracting, privatization seeks to replace work appropriately done by public employees with outside services in economically inappropriate situations. Under the best of circumstances public contracting is a difficult and expensive task to manage well. It is laden with high supervision and monitoring costs. The alternative to this high cost is political corruption and low quality goods and services. This choice between two bad options was a major impetus for political reforms earlier in this century. To the extent that public contracting was needed, reformers long ago concluded that it had to be carried out in a careful and circumscribed manner. 

Despite the serious underlying flaws in public contracting, over the past two decades conservative ideologues have seized upon an idealized notion of competitive public contracting and have attempted to use it as a hammer with which to fracture the role of public service in civic life. This militant advocacy of privatization has a doubly malevolent goal: 1) to diminish the ability of government to provide high quality public services to all citizens and to especially diminish its role in protecting the health and well being of the most vulnerable members of society (the poor, the sick, the elderly and children) and 2) to cripple organized labor's ability to defend the wages and living standards of all working Americans. 

Although these two goals are the true agenda of the privatization advocates, they try to rally support by claiming to be defenders of public service. They claim to merely seek to improve it, not to destroy it. Progressives must make the issue of efficient, effective and responsive public service a centerpiece of their political agenda. Absent a good alternative, a bad one will always persist.

A Critique of the Manhattan Institute's Vision of New York City
Hector R. Cordero-Guzman and Andrea Bachrach, Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, New School for Social Research

In their Autumn 1997 article in City Journal entitled "New York's Million Missing Jobs" Steven Craig and D. Andrew Austin continue the Manhattan Institute's assault on New York City's middle classes, working classes, and the poor by arguing that poverty and unemployment in the City are the result of government regulation, taxation, and spending. Craig and Austin build their case by arguing that New York City has excessively high per capita tax rates but that city residents receive few "necessary" services in return; that the City's "bloated" budget depresses job growth; that high tax rates erode employment growth; and that drastic reductions in spending and a removal of sales and income taxes would encourage the growth of jobs in the City. 

The article by Craig and Austin is based on the assumption that taxes deter growth but does not prove this. The article compares New York City's revenue and expenditure levels (on a per capita basis) to the 18 largest cities in four major regions of the United States. Their numbers are interesting but the findings are not convincing since the figures combine city and county level data and their strong assumption that taxation deters growth does not allow them to examine the facts clearly and objectively. In fact, one could argue that government taxation supports and stimulates growth; that adequate regulation encourages competition, entrepreneurial efforts, and business development; that workplace regulations and worker protections encourage productivity growth; and that government should work to encourage social and human development and it should work to fairly distribute the gains of productivity increases and economic growth. 

In our critique we will argue that: a) New York city is demographically different in important ways from other major cities and that this affects taxes and expenditures; b) that the state regime and the formulas for the allocation of state and federal resources and funds are quite different from other cities for a number of relevant historical reasons; c) that their article assumes that decreased taxation will automatically lead to job creation; d) the article ignores the consequences of cuts for workers and the poor; and e) the article does not take into account the complexity of New York City's employment problems (a strategy to discourage manufacturing and encourage FIRE and services) and therefore offers very simplistic solutions. Our main argument is that under regulated and under-taxed economies increase inequality and deteriorate into social chaos and gangsterism. Gangsters and wealthy predators benefit from an unregulated winner-takes-all economy and they can certainly isolate themselves from the attendant increases in crime and social disorder. Perhaps it is they who want and argue most strongly for a reduction in their income taxes to the detriment of those seeking community economic development and a poverty and crime free civil society. 

The Quality of Life for Working People
Joshua Freeman, History Department, Queens College

The creation of the Five Borough Institute responds to a two-fold narrowing of public discussion about urban life and urban policy. First, most of the ideas that have captured public attention and established the political agenda have arisen from the political right. Second, most voices heard in policy debates come from limited social strata -- politicians, foundation, officials, and business groups. Working-class New Yorkers are far less likely to play a significant role in decision-making about the future of the city. This was not always the case.

During the decade after World War II, working-class New Yorkers played a pervasive role in shaping the economic, political and social life of the region. New York labor helped lead the city toward a social democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements. New York became a laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality, and popular access to culture and education. In housing, health care, and the arts, organized labor helped construct the social infrastructure of the city. Labor could play this role because of its size, economic power, and political clout. But critical, too, was a kind of audacity, largely missing today from both labor and the political left, a sense of possession about the city and its future.

Today, labor seems so immersed in immediate struggles to defend what it has and revive organizing efforts, that it no longer is serving as an incubator of social reform. Here is a role that the Five Borough Institute can play, throwing out ideas, challenging received truths, bringing together allies, initiating reforms. For the Five Borough Institute to succeed, scholars and unionists need to listen to one another, grant each latitude, and learn to disagree. If we can do that, perhaps we can recapture some of the audacity that once characterized New York labor and the New York left.

The Temping of New York City
Joan Greenbaum, Professor Computer Information Systems, CUNY

New York City's healthy employment sectors--arts and entertainment, hotels and hospitality, programming and telecommunications, securities and finance, and contracting and building--are increasingly based on the work of a part-time and temporary workforce. Work in these areas has been divided over time and space so that the old contract between employer and employee has been broken in favor hiring people only when and where they are needed and casting them aside when they are not needed. While this may be an economically sensible policy for inventory parts, it is decidedly impractical for maintaining New York City workers, and their families, their mortgages, and their neighborhoods.

The old contract between employer and employee, which came into being at the start of the industrial period, moved the workplace out of the home, collecting workers under one roof--the factory roof-- and setting a fixed time period for their labor. This same pattern, or set of expectations for some form of job security, was carried over in the early post-industrial period, shaping office work through the twentieth century. It set longer term expectations for workers, enabling them to buy houses and invest in the goods of the American dream. And it established longer term profit horizon for the large corporations that employed them. Agreed-upon contracts over working hours and wages also set the pattern for union organizing and bargaining.

But newer growing work sectors, like New York's arts and entertainment industry, rely on freelance and temporary workers who provide services like production assistance or lighting, by the day or the "product", which in this industry is call a "shoot". Some may say that the increasing emphasis on pricing labor by the end product is characteristic of the entertainment business, but it should be noted that this form of contingent or temporary labor is also widespread in programming and telecommunications, where programmers are expected to deliver software according to a "deliverables" date. Employment in securities and finance is also more oriented toward deliverables or products, with this sector relying heavily on staffing agencies to supply day, weekly or monthly workers to meet the due dates and peak periods. 

This breakdown of time and place as measuring units for labor is having marked effects on the abilities of workers to plan their futures and buy into New York City as a place to live as well as to work. It also marks a transition to a new form of labor organizing and bargaining which is less based on central workplaces and fixed time periods, and more geared toward establishing security for working people, regardless of where or when their work takes place.

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